May 13th, 2012

On those days when project management sucks, try being a Mom

Welcome to my project from hell. Let’s say you’re managing a project. It is two months behind schedule. It’s way over budget. As the deadline approaches, your team is in a visible state of panic. Instead of looking for solutions, they’re looking for reasons to delay the project. Instead of looking for ways to maintain the schedule, there are cries that “we can’t do this”. Instead of working on real problems, such as why users can’t print, there are discussions regarding colours and fonts. New problems pop up about every fifteen minutes and with each problem comes more panic. Instead of spending most of your time solving the issues that would help the project to move forward, you spend time more time dealing with the Chicken Littles that pop into your office about every two minutes.

Welcome to my project from hell.

Sometimes even good project managers go to hell. I know what you’re thinking: I must have done something wrong to deserve this. If you follow PMBOK and do all of those project-management-y things that you’re supposed to do, then the projects don’t go to hell.

Well, let’s go through that list, shall we?

Project Charter which lists deliverables, success criteria, schedule and budget, and signed off by the project sponsor? Check.

Project Schedule? Check.

Project risks managed? Well, a couple of those risks ended up playing on the wrong side which explains the budget and schedule overrun. But other than that: check.

Resources? The right people are dedicated to the project and it’s high level enough that those people have it as their top (and only) priority. Check.

Project’s business case make sense? Check.

So, what else could possibly cause a project to go to project hell?


Those unpredictable, emotional, irrational human beings. Who do not follow the logic of critical path methodology, CPI, or 1+1=2.

It’d be a great job if it weren’t for the people, wouldn’t it?

Managing projects means managing teams. By definition, a project is a unique endeavour with a defined start and finish. Given the “unique” part, chances are pretty good (like 99.9999%) that you need a team in order to execute projects. Which means that, there’s no way around it, managing projects means managing teams. And managing teams means managing people.

Teams go through four phases of team building:

  • Forming: The team comes together, and the members get to know each other. There is very little conflict at this stage.
  • Storming: Team members are more open with each other and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives. This stage is characterized by conflict, also known as project hell. Some teams never get past this stage. (Did you just cry as you read that? I did.)
  • Norming: Team members unite around one goal. There is some give-and-take as the individual members give up their own ideas and accept the decision of the team.
  • Performing: This is team nirvana and it’s where you find high-performing teams: the team functions as a whole, “they find ways to get the job done smoothly and effectively without inappropriate conflict or the need for external supervision”. If you just read that sentence and it sounded the exact opposite of your team, well then, you’re not here.

There are two key messages that you need to understand about these four phases:

  1. You cannot get to nirvana without passing through hell. And hell is the Storming phase.
  2. The Storming phase really sucks. It makes your job suck. It makes the project suck. It sucks your energy and passion. It sucks the motivation out of your team. If the team never gets past this stage, it will fall apart. And so will your project. Which sucks even more.

Here are some signs that your team is stuck in the Storming phase:

  • Team members focus on minute details in order to avoid the real issues. For example, they worry about fonts and colours instead of why all of your printers disappeared from your network.
  • Team members feel overwhelmed by the work remaining on the project and panic. A task that should take 2 days will balloon out of proportion and suddenly need “two months”.
  • Every five minutes, Chicken Little comes into your office to announce that “the sky is falling”.
  • Working on the project is an emotional roller coaster and you feel drained of energy after a team meeting instead of energized and ready to tackle problems. During your lunch hour, you eat a sandwich in your car and cry your eyes out.

Be a Mom to get your team out of the Storming phase

How to make the storm pass. As it says here: “The maturity of some team members usually determines whether the team will ever move out of this stage.” In other words, when your team members, who are normally intelligent, competent professionals, behave like children, you’re stuck in Storming.

There is only one thing you can do.

You have to pull out all of the stops.

You have to be a Mom.

Acting like children? Treat them like children. Try these Mom tactics to get your team out of Storming:

  1. The answer is “No”. If you’ve debated an issue over and over, end the debate for once and for all. Make a decision, make it clear to the team and move on. Do not allow anyone on the team to put the issue back on the table. Instead, distract them with the 50,000 other action items that you have on the project action item list.
  2. Tough love. If someone is behaving in a way that you find unacceptable, book a one-on-one meeting with that person and make it clear what behaviours you need to see. You’d be surprised at how different people behave by themselves than when surrounded by their team mates, especially when the team stuck on Storming. And don’t forget to mention all the strengths that this person has that seem to have all of a sudden disappeared and that you’d like to see come back.
  3. No texting at the dinner table, a curfew and other rules. Lay out the ground rules for your team members, sternly and clearly. Meetings scheduled for 9:30 am start at 9:30 am. Confiscate Blackberries that get opened during a meeting. And zero tolerance for broken rules. You’ve got to mean it. So be prepared to follow through on enforcing your rules.
  4. No whining. A project has enough problems without team members adding more. Sure, list all of the problems, but make sure that more time is spent on finding solutions than whining about problems.
  5. Time outs. There is no tolerance for bad behaviour. Don’t be afraid to punish misbehaviour: sternly, politely, but mostly sternly.

Raising children is hard, but rewarding. When you see your 15-year-old daughter up on a stage at her high school musical belting out a tune and you’re asking yourself where on earth that came from but you’re as proud as hell, that’s when you remember how rewarding parenting is.

And when you’re sitting at the project post-mortem, reviewing the end of a successful (although difficult) project and that dark period in your team’s journey is long past, that’s when you remember how rewarding project management is.

Project management doesn’t always suck.

Happy Mother’s Day.

5 comments to On those days when project management sucks, try being a Mom

  • dan

    Hi Liz

    Nice blog, but I came to the conclusion that Project management as a means of earning a living sucked like a hoover vacuum cleaner and left it and will never return.

    I don’t regret the years spent in hell (much!) but I certainly won’t do it again.

    Should do lunch soon.


  • Delia

    Hi! I am a relatively young project manager (from all points of view), but none the less I have already managed pretty large, critical projects. Still, I don’t see myself as a mature project manager, but more of a teenager project manager (past childhood :)). And as every teenager, I had the mentality that “this only happens to me. Nobody understand me”.. That is until I discovered your blog. It has truly opened my eyes! I read your posts and constantly go “wow! that happened tome too! that is sooo true! it’s like.. you understand me, man!” :). This post in particular touched a very sensitive cord. The place I work at is made up of teams that are in a perpetual state of Storming. They have been for many years, long before I showed up, and will continue to be for many more to come (I blame it mostly on the upper management style which is basically driven by installing fear and paranoia). Children! This thought crossed my mind at almost every large meeting I had, even though many of the people there were almost twice my age.
    Now, here is my dilemma – I see the potential of those actions that you describe as solutions. But how do you enforce the “mummy act” when you’re only 28, and your team members are on average 40? I found it very difficult. I managed to have successful implementations each time, high appraisals, but at a terrible cost to my well being. Always feeling drained of energy, always stressed, sleepless nights, always on my toes and constantly trying to mediate conflicts. How do you really do it under these circumstances? Teach me, oh master! :)

    Very nice to “meet” you, by the way! :)

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Mark: I wrote a blog post describing how you can apply PMBOK principles to a turkey dinner for 18, which you can check out here: . My point? PMBOK is just a tool, it’s the Project Manager that makes the difference.
    Thanks for reading.

  • Eliza

    Thank you for this blog! I ended up here from Google with search: “it project manager” + “being a mom”. I’m currently in charge of a major ICT project, and I have 3-year old toddler at home. And I have “Storming” situation both at work (continuously) and at home (sometimes). It was calming to read about these experiences – I’m not alone.
    Trying to survive!

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